b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits and criminally sanctions forced or compulsory labor “except in cases specified by law for national emergency and with just remuneration.” Although the law prohibits withholding of workers’ passports, the practice remained common among sponsors and employers of foreign workers and the government demonstrated no consistent efforts to enforce this prohibition. Employers confined some domestic and agricultural workers to their workspaces by retaining their passport and, in the case of some domestic workers, locked them in their work locations. Workers who fled abusive employers had difficulty retrieving their passports, and authorities deported them in almost all cases. The government usually limited punishment to assessing fines, shutting employment firms, issuing orders for employers to return withheld passports, or requiring employers to pay back wages.
Over the last year, 3,600 Indian workers were stranded in the country when the Kharafi National Company declared bankruptcy on one of its largest projects and stopped paying workers. In July more than 700 of the Indian workers were forced to leave the country without their earned salaries after the Indian government negotiated with the PAM a 250 dinars ($825) relief amount to purchase air tickets for repatriation to India and have their travel bans lifted. According to officials the PAM selected the 700 workers that received the relief stipend based on their sponsorship status with Kharafi National Company, complaints lodged with the PAM, and willingness to leave the country between November and April without the payment of earned salaries. Some of the workers who remained in the country were able to find new sponsors and take on new work.
As of April, PAM inspectors in collaboration with residency affairs detectives raided 206 fake and inactive companies that had approximately 4,000 workers under their sponsorship. These companies were found to be in violation of residency laws. The owners of fake companies were referred to the public prosecution, and the courts fined them more than one million dinars ($3.3 million) in penalties.
In July the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor indicated that approximately 7,200 court rulings were issued against fake companies involved in visa trafficking since 2014. The total amount of fines collected from those companies exceeded 12 million dinars ($40 million), an average of 1,700 dinars (approximately $5,600) per company. In August the PAM reported it had won more than 500 cases against visa traffickers. These companies were founded solely to sell visas to foreign workers; once the workers were registered to the fake companies, they become unemployed, worked as marginal workers, or were trafficked.
Some incidents of forced labor and conditions indicative of forced labor occurred, especially among foreign domestic and agricultural workers. Such practices were usually a result of employer abuse of the sponsorship system (kafala) for noncitizen workers. Employers frequently illegally withheld salaries from domestic workers and minimum-wage laborers.
Domestic servitude was the most common type of forced labor, principally involving foreign domestic workers employed under the sponsorship system, but reports of forced labor in the construction and sanitation sectors also existed. Forced labor conditions for migrant workers included nonpayment of wages, long working hours, deprivation of food, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement, such as withholding passports or confinement to the workplace. As of July employers filed 4,500 “absconding” reports against private sector employees. Domestic workers have filed approximately 240 complaints against their employers in accordance with the domestic labor law. Numerous domestic workers who escaped from abusive employers reported waiting several months to regain passports, which employers illegally confiscated when they began their employment.
The PAM operated a shelter for abused domestic workers. As of October, according to a government source, the shelter had a capacity of 500 victims. It housed as many as 450 residents in April before the residency amnesty that removed travel bans from workers seeking to return home. According to the latest report, 145 workers were resident at the shelter.
A government owned company for recruiting domestic workers officially launched its services in 2017 and initially planned to bring 120 domestic workers a month from the Philippines and approximately 100 male workers from India. In November the government-owned company, which is mandated to provide training for domestic workers and cut out middlemen to lower recruitment fees for employers, announced new agreements with India and the Philippines to start bringing workers. The target recruitment fee is between 350 and 895 dinars (approximately $1,150 and $3,000) per worker, depending on experience and skillset. The government regularly conducted information awareness campaigns via media outlets and public events and otherwise informed employers to encourage compliance by the public and private recruiting companies with the new law.
There were numerous media reports throughout the year of sponsors abusing domestic workers or significantly injuring them when they tried to escape; some reports alleged that abuse resulted in workers’ deaths. Female domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Police and courts were reluctant to prosecute citizens for abuse in private residences but prosecuted serious cases of abuse when reported. According to a high-level government official, authorities prosecuted several cases of domestic worker abuse. In November a local woman was charged with premeditated murder and trafficking in persons for beating her domestic worker to death.
In February the case of Joanna Demafelis, a Filipina domestic worker killed and left in an apartment freezer by her Syrian and Lebanese employers highlighted the plight of domestic workers in the country. The employers of the Filipina domestic worker, who had fled the country, were arrested in February in Syria and Lebanon following an Interpol manhunt and faced extradition to Kuwait. The Criminal Court sentenced the pair in their absence to death by hanging.
Numerous media reports highlighted the problem of visa trading, where companies and recruitment agencies work together to “sell” visas to prospective workers. Often the jobs and companies attached to these visas do not exist, and the workers were left to be exploited and find work in the black market to earn a living and pay the cost of the residency visa. Arrests of visa traffickers and illegal labor rings occurred almost weekly. Since workers cannot freely change jobs, they were sometimes willing to leave their initial job due to low wages or unacceptable working conditions and enter into an illegal residency status with the hope of improved working conditions at another job.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.